1. Introduction

The natural environment of Kalamazoo not only influences development patterns of the City but quality of life. Protecting the natural environment of Kalamazoo will increase the health, property values and aesthetic character of the community.

 The various components of the natural environment function, change and interact as part of an ecosystem. A particular ecosystem is defined by it's climate, geology, hydrology, soils, topography, and the presence of specific wildlife and vegetation within the environment. The importance is understanding the interaction among these components and that alteration to one element will inevitably effect all others. Quite often the attempt to protect this system imposes certain constraints on development dependent upon a community's distinctive ecosystem.

The City of Kalamazoo's ecosystem is unique in that it is primarily defined by the Kalamazoo River corridor, it's tributaries and flanking upland woodlands. Alterations to any of these features resulting from development need to be carefully considered to minimize impact and insure mitigation where necessary to maintain the natural balance. Not doing so will alter the system and possibly result in such things as increased erosion and sedimentation, decreased ground water recharge, and increased surface runoff. To insure that community development is compatible with the natural features of the City, all new development needs to consider maintaining the natural functions of the environment. Limitations on the type and extent of future development in the City of Kalamazoo occur in areas that are susceptible to flooding, steeply sloped, poorly drained, and harbor endangered or threatened species.

Protected natural resources frequently present opportunities for development. The scenic and recreational attractiveness of the creeks, hills and woodlands offer a unique campus and residential setting. The Kalamazoo River corridor is a regionally important resource which provides drinking water and habitat for plant and animal species. It has potential for future environmental reclamation and use as a recreational corridor.

The following is a brief overview of some of the major natural features that are prevalent within the City. As development occurs, the following features should be considered in addition to other site specific conditions that may be pertinent to each individual location.

2. Geology

The geology of the City of Kalamazoo was formed through glacial action 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Glacial drift, a very thick layer of soil material, deposited by the advancement and retreat of the Wisconsin glacier during the last ice age determined the landforms and soils of the State of Michigan. Since the last ice age, the soils of the City of Kalamazoo were produced as a result of a number of soil forming factors. These include water drainage, wind, slopes, climate, biological activity, and human activity.

The two distinct surface features of Kalamazoo are a belt of moraines that form a ridge on the west side of the city and ponded areas along the Kalamazoo River. The belt of moraines is characterized by hilly, uneven, knoblike hills and pothole depressions that form small lakes. The soils of the moraines are underlain by sand and gravel.

The Kalamazoo River flows westerly into the City of Kalamazoo and then turns north leaving the City along the northern border. After leaving the City the river curves west and flows into Lake Michigan. The City of Kalamazoo is located within the Kalamazoo River Drainage Basin.

3. Topography/Slope

The topographic features of Kalamazoo are characterized by a flat open plateau flanked by two ridges or lines of hills running along the northeast and southwest edges of the plateau. The plateau is one and three quarters miles wide with the Kalamazoo River running along the north edge. The ridges are generally sloped at 6 to 12 percent with approximately one third of the ridges in steeper slopes over 12 percent.

Slope is an important development consideration associated with topographic features. There are three common slope problems:

  • Mechanical cut and fill where slopes are reshaped, and in some locations steepened, result in a significant change in the natural functions of the hillside.
  • Deforestation from past agricultural operations, and now by development, cause both a weakening of the slope and increased surface runoff rates.
  • Improper location of structures on slopes causing changes to vegetation, slopes, and drainage patterns.

Areas of extreme slope are dispersed throughout the lines of hills that flank the Kalamazoo River plateau. In accordance with sound planning principles, most of the severe slopes have been left undeveloped and are heavily vegetated. Slopes over 12 percent require sensitive site planning if they are developed. Care should be taken to insure that extensive grading is minimized and to insure that natural features such as vegetation, and top soil are protected.

Along the floodplains and wetlands that line the Kalamazoo River and the other drainage ways of the City, there are steep banks which separate the lowland and the upland. These will generally have steep slopes and be heavily vegetated. Disruption of the vegetative cover on these bank areas may cause significant erosion problems and effect stream ecology.

Downtown Kalamazoo is developed within the lower elevations of the plateau at approximately 780 feet above sea level. The river banks are at 760 feet above sea level and the hilltops to the north of the river corridor are at elevations of 860 feet above sea level. The hilltops of the southwestern band of hills generally reach 910 feet above sea level and the high point of the City is approximately 980 feet above sea level near the northwestern corner of the city limits

4. Soils

In order to minimize construction costs and risks to the environment, it is desirable for future development to be constructed upon sites with suitable soils. Poor soils present problems such as poor foundation stability and septic field failure. The three major soil characteristics considered in the analysis of soil conditions are drainage, foundation stability, and septic suitability characteristics. Each of these factors have been inventoried and mapped by the Kalamazoo County Soil Survey, prepared by the Soil Conservation Service.

a. Soil Series

The two most abundant soil series within the City of Kalamazoo are the Kalamazoo and Oshtemo series. They are nearly level to rolling, well drained soils formed in glacial outwash and morainic deposits. The Kalamazoo soils formed with loamy over sandy material. They have more clay, and therefore, are less droughty than the sandy Oshtemo soils. These soils are well suited for building site development, sanitary facilities, recreation, and woodlands. Where slopes are greater than 12 percent they are poorly suited to recreation and most building site development. Removal of the vegetation which covers these steep hillsides may cause severe erosion problems. These steeply sloped soils do have some limitations for septic fields, as their slope does not allow proper filtration.

 Many of the low-lying, wet areas along the River, lakes and streams consist primarily of Glendora series soils with Gifford, Adrian, Brady, Houghton and Sebewa series found in low lying areas of the uplands. The Glendora series soils are of very poorly drained rapidly permeable soils on flood plains along rivers and streams. These soils formed in sandy alluvium. Adrian and Houghton soils are very poorly drained organic soils that occupy depressions. Adrian soils are 16 to 50 inches of muck formed over sand and Houghton soils are more than 50 inches of muck. The very poorly drained Gifford and Sebewa soils are found in slightly higher landscape positions with the Gifford soils containing more sand and the Sebewa soils containing more clay than the Glendora soils. The Brady series soils are somewhat poorly drained sandy soils found in depressions. In upland areas these soils are suited to cultivated crops, recreation, woodland, septic tank absorption fields, and most building site development. In the low lands they are well suited to wetland wildlife but are poorly suited to most other use due to wetness and flooding. Limitations are severe for shallow excavations in the uplands because banks cut in excavations tend to cave.

b. Drainage

Soil drainage characteristics are examined because of the potentially high development costs, maintenance costs and sanitary problems encountered on poorly drained soils. These costs and problems are often associated with septic field failures, flooded basements, and susceptibility to frost action. Dense mucks, silts, and clays with high water tables are the soils most often associated with drainage problems.

In general, poorly drained lands lie within the floodplains of the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries. Other areas include Kleinstuck Marsh, Asylum Lake, Averill Lake and the numerous small ponds or depressions throughout the City. Moderately drained and well drained soils consist of loamy sands which allow the passage of water from surface layers to lower soil depths. These areas are sufficiently above the groundwater table to assist drainage and provide a suitable foundation for construction.

c. Foundation Stability

Shifting foundations, cracked walls, and cracked pavement and roadways are some of the potential problems associated with foundation instability. These problems often result in increased development and maintenance costs or, in extreme cases, structural failure. Generally, well­drained, coarse­textured soils provide the most suitable foundations. Well drained soils with good or fair stability are located in the plateau and upland sections and of the City. Poor soil stability occurs with soils containing large concentrations of organic material, such as muck, silt and clay. The areas of poor soil stability are concentrated in the low lying and poorly drained areas adjacent to the River, lakes and creeks. In those low lying areas the presence of water in and near the surface contributes to frost heave, compression, shrinkage and swelling.

d. Septic Suitability

Many of the soils in Kalamazoo are not suitable for septic fields due to steep slopes or wetness. Areas of slight septic suitability are predominantly in upland areas with level, well drained soils. Septic fields are generally not necessary in the City of Kalamazoo because it is served by sanitary sewer.

Septic field failures are often the result of poor soil permeability, high water table or excessive slope. Soils such as compacted clays and silts will not allow wastewater to percolate through the filtering layers of soil. A high water table prohibits adequate filtering thereby allowing the sewage effluent to pollute the groundwater supplies and contaminate wells, lakes, and streams. Excessive slope does not provide adequate time for percolation. Instead wastewater will drain to the low end of the septic field and the filtering action of the entire septic field will not be utilized.

5. Water Resources

Water resources are essential for plant, animal and human life. Groundwater and surface water deposits are vital to the Kalamazoo community. Kalamazoo's water supply is drawn from a series of groundwater wells. The Kalamazoo River, wetlands, lakes and streams in the City are important resources for their groundwater recharge function, their wildlife habitat and their scenic and recreational value. These water resources should continue to be protected and managed to insure their quality and availability for future use.

a. Drainage

Upland areas drain to the low lying wetlands, lakes and streams which drain into the Kalamazoo River which drains into Lake Michigan. As development intensifies, the amount of water infiltrating the surface decreases and the surface runoff increases. This is due to the clearing of natural vegetation, addition of impervious material to the land (buildings and pavement), and installation of storm drains. The cumulative effect of development increases the peak discharge in the area rivers and streams while reducing the amount of water infiltrating to ground water. To minimize these impacts native vegetation and wetlands should be protected, storm water should be retained on-site, clustered development patterns and existing urban areas should be utilized.

 b. Groundwater

Important factors in the evaluation of groundwater are the quantity and quality of the water. Water quality is a more critical factor than water availability in the City of Kalamazoo. Potential sources of groundwater contamination can result from all of the various land uses within Kalamazoo. The level of threat of groundwater contamination will vary based upon: 1) the susceptibility of groundwater to contamination due to geologic features; 2) contamination loading rates based upon land use and hazardous materials management; and, 3) the amount and type of hazardous materials utilized within the City.

Major sources of groundwater contamination are as follows:

  • Buried wastes in landfills discharge liquids referred to as leachate which can enter groundwater.
  • Agricultural fertilizers and pesticides which may infiltrate the soil surface and enter groundwater.
  • Urban stormwater run off from buildings, streets and parking lots which contains contaminants that enter waterways and infiltrates the soil.
  • Septic drainfields which release sewage effluent into the soil through seepage beds.
  • Spills and leakage of hazardous materials such as underground storage tanks and spills of hazardous materials that will infiltrate the soil surface and enter groundwater if not properly contained.

c. Surface Water

The Kalamazoo River is currently industrial in character. Years of industrial use and environmental contamination have diminished the river's value for habitat, recreation and development. Although degraded, the Kalamazoo River is still among the most valuable natural resources of the City due to the vast number of communities it links. Water quality is increasing and as this trend continues the potential for habitat reclamation, future recreation use and redevelopment will rise. This river which has its headwaters in Jackson County and discharges into Lake Michigan, provides vital functions to the region for drainage, fish and wildlife habitat, industry and recreation. Asylum Lake, Limekiln Lake, White Lake and Woods Lake are small lakes located along the West Fork of Portage Creek and the Axtell Creek drainage corridors. They provide a number of scenic and recreational opportunities to the community. Development near and surface water runoff into these lakes can diminish the water quality and therefore the appearance and value as habitat of these lakes. Water pollution is a major concern which jeopardizes the residential and recreational setting. Sources of pollution can be controlled through drainage and runoff controls, septic field corrections, proper treatment of sanitary wastes, land use planning, limitation of fertilizer applications, and action by lake associations or residents. The quality of these water features enhance the value of adjacent property.

 The creeks within the City drain into the Kalamazoo River. The primary stream corridors include: the Portage Creek and West Fork of the Portage Creek drainage; the Davis Creek drainage; the Spring Valley drainage; the Axtell Creek drainage; and, the Arcadia Creek drainage. Most of the wetlands and lakes in the City are located within these corridors. Stream corridors are important for surface drainage, groundwater recharge and wildlife habitat. Alteration of the creeks, lakes and wetlands can contribute to flooding, poor water quality, insufficient water supply and loss of valuable wildlife habitat. Balancing the protection of water features with community growth will require land use planning and engineering that minimizes the disturbance of natural systems.

 d. Wetlands

Wetlands play a very important part in the hydrological and ecological systems. In addition to providing fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands also maintain and stabilize groundwater supplies, reduce the dangers of flooding, and improve water quality.

Any wetlands which are greater than five acres in size are regulated by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) through the Goemaere-Anderson Wetland Protection Act, Public Act 203, as amended. Any activity which requires that these regulated wetlands be filled or drained requires a permit from the MDEQ. Permits will generally not be granted unless the issuance is in the public interest and necessary to realize the benefits derived from the activity. If a wetland fill permit is granted, then mitigation should be required such as creating new wetlands within the same drainage way or enhancement of existing wetlands.

Major wetland complexes associated with lakes, streams and floodplains are found throughout Kalamazoo (Figure XI-1). The largest wetlands are located adjacent to Asylum Lake, Limekiln Lake and Averill Lake. Other areas are found east of the Kalamazoo River and south of Charles Avenue near the sewage disposal ponds, near Pikes Pond, along Arcadia Creek, Portage Creek, and several kettle depressions scattered throughout the City.

Figure XI-1

Wetland areas within the City Two types of wetlands predominate within the boundaries of the City of Kalamazoo: (1) scrub/shrub wetlands; and (2) forested wetlands with an overstory of trees and an understory of shrubs. As water levels rise and fall from year to year, some ecological succession may be occurring as the wetlands shift from emergent marsh to forested wetlands. All types of wetlands are interrelated with each other, providing numerous benefits to the community as a whole.

Wetlands serve a variety of important functions which not only benefit the natural environment, but also the community. Some of the primary values which wetlands contribute are as follows:

  • Wetlands serve to mitigate flooding by detaining surface runoff.
  • Wetlands control soil erosion and sedimentation loading in rivers and lakes.
  • Wetlands are often interlinked with groundwater.
  • Wetlands improve water quality which is degraded by such things as:
    nutrients and chemicals from fertilizers andpesticides used in agriculture and
    landscaping/lawn care; polluted urban run off from automobile /transportation/parking facilities, industrial and other commercial activities; treated effluent from waste water treatment facilities; erosion and sedimentation resulting fromagricultural and construction activities.
  • Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems in terms of wildlife habitat and vegetation.
  • Wetlands also serve a variety of aesthetic and recreational functions.

These wetlands are transitional areas between the aquatic ecosystems and the surrounding upland areas. They are low areas which are intermittently covered with shallow water and underlined by saturated soils. Vegetation which is adapted to wet soil conditions, fluctuation in water levels and periodic flooding can be found in wetlands. Wetlands are interlinked with the hydrologic system and because of this, these wetland systems are vital to the environmental quality of the City of Kalamazoo. Future development in areas surrounding these wetlands could significantly impact wetland resources. Therefore, developers and community leaders should evaluate viable alternatives to avoid the impact. This is best done by initially considering wetland resources as constraints to development. The relative weight of these constraints must also account for other environmental and socio-economic constraints. Minimization of impacts to these resources should also take into account the cost of avoidance and the property rights of the individual. If impact is unavoidable, then mitigation should include an analysis of retaining or enhancing the wetland values to be lost.

Wetland areas are also very valuable as natural buffers between residential and commercial land uses. They contribute significantly to the aesthetic character of the community. Many wetlands are located in low areas adjacent to the area's lakes and rivers. Because these wetlands are undevelopable, the open areas should remain natural. These open areas will help maintain picturesque views of the lakes. By incorporating wetlands as part of the future development of the community, they will continue to maintain open and green space as well as contribute to linkages between open spaces.

 Natural floodplains perform several important hydrological, geological, ecological, and environmental functions:

  • Important hydrologic functions include:
    flood conveyance, storage of floodwater,  reduction of peak flow through storage and friction, groundwater recharge
  • Important geologic functions include:
    storage of sediment carried along the main stream, slowing the velocity of floodwater there by reducing erosion of the channel and floodplain, storage of sediments from overland erosion
  • Important ecologic functions include:
    support of riparian vegetation, support of wildlife habitat, support of environmental corridors which foster movement of animal and plant species, support of habitat for migratory birds
  • Important environmental functions performed by floodplains are:
    filtration of storm water through vegetation to remove sediment, absorption of excess nutrients from water into soil and plants,
    transportation and deposition of nutrients, and plant materials, biological treatment of other pollutants

e. Floodplains

A flood plain is the land area adjacent to a watercourse that is subject to flood-ing. The designation of flood plains and the restriction of their development is a measure designed to protect life, health and property. Federal, state and local laws regulate encroachment, dredging and filling within flood plain areas.

 Floodplains associated with the Kalamazoo River and the City of Kalamazoo drainage corridors are vital to the ecosystem of these low lying areas. Periodic flooding of these drainage ways is critical to the types of vegetation and animal species which live here. Floodplains also contain water during periods of high stream levels. Any alteration to the physical size of the floodplain will disrupt the drainage flow during high water periods and potentially cause increased flooding elsewhere.

6. Woodlands

The City of Kalamazoo is known for its mature tree cover (Figure XI-2). A significant portion of the total land area of the City is wooded. Much of this area is on steep slopes or within stream corridors and adjacent to the inland lakes and wetlands. Species such as sugar and red maple, beech, basswood, cherry and ash predominate. The majority of the wooded area of Kalamazoo is categorized as upland hardwood with beech/ maple and oak/hickory forest. Isolated areas of upland conifers can be found near the Kleinstuck Marsh. Species such as white, red, jack and scotch pine along with white or black spruce, balsam, douglas fir, larch and hemlock predominate in the upland conifer woodlands. Where natural vegetation meets the water's edge, areas of unique scenic resources and wildlife habitat are found. Future development should be planned in a manner protecting unique woodlands.Figure XI-2

tree cover

Abundant mature street trees help to enhance neighborhoods and create an atmosphere that makes Kalamazoo a special place to live. Trees can also provide visual barriers between neighboring properties and relief from the hard surfaces of urban areas.

Woodlands provide the following community benefits:

  • Influence on micro-climate: Woodlands play an important role in moderating ground-level temperatures. The tree canopy buffers the ground surface from the sun's heat and wind. Trees also help to moderate temperature extremes during winter months.
  • Reduction in air pollution: Woodlands absorb carbon dioxide and return oxygen to the air. Tree leaves filter pollutants from the air, removing ozone, chlorine, hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants. Large and dense stands of trees serve as a noise buffer as well.
  • Reduction in soil erosion: Woodlands and other vegetation stabilize soils and help prevent soil erosion. The vegetation absorbs the energy of falling rain, and the web of roots of all types help hold soil particles in place. Tree leaves reduce the impact of raindrops on the soil surface and give soil a chance to absorb water. Fallen leaves minimize the loss of soil moisture, help prevent erosion, and enrich the soil to support later plant growth. Wooded wetlands provide the additional benefit of trapping and holding stormwater runoff. Dense vegetation can help slow flood surges and flows.
  • Wildlife habitat: Woodlands provide essential shelter and food for deer, raccoon, rabbits, pheasants, and other birds and animals. The opportunity to observe wildlife in a natural setting has educational benefits for City residents.

Woodlands are a valuable resource which contribute to the character of Kalamazoo. There is a significant amount of mature vegetation along many of the road corridors that pass through the City. Woodlands located near the roadway contribute to the beauty of a city in a number of ways. The impact of vegetation on the motorist will be greater because of the close proximity to the roadway. A greater mass of vegetation will be within the forward view of the motorist. Other features such as buildings will have a less dominant impact on the streetscape because they fall behind the vegetative foreground. Taller trees will provide a sense of enclosure, providing a defined space bounded by vegetation. There is also a significant amount of vegetation along most lakes and streams throughout the area. This vegetation contributes to water quality by stabilizing the water feature's banks, by shading and cooling the water and by providing food and habitat for fish and wildlife.

7. Fish, Wildlife and Special Natural Features

The continued existence of fish and wildlife depends upon the maintenance of adequate habitat. While some species can adopt to the pressures of urbanization, others cannot live in close proximity to humans. Fish and wildlife habitat are areas which provide food, cover, and corridors for movement. For example, the wetlands in the City of Kalamazoo are essential as habitat and as a food source for the fishery of the Kalamazoo River and the various lakes of the City. As wetland vegetation dies back each season, it breaks down into particles called detritus which is eaten by insects as well as birds and small mammals. Insects, in turn, are eaten by the fish.

It is important to provide areas of sufficient size to be useful to wildlife through either protection of existing habitat or creating new habitat. Reasonably continuous corridors must be provided for adequate movement of wildlife and plant seeds between isolated areas.

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory is maintained by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as a service to citizens and local officials. Plants and animals which are (or are potentially) threatened or endangered are listed on the inventories. The inventory is not a definitive statement about the presence, absence or condition of environmental features, since many of the sites listed have not been completely surveyed. Unfortunately, some features present in the past may already have been destroyed by human factors and development. In some cases, the only way to obtain a definite statement on the status of natural features is to have a competent biologist perform a complete field survey.

Plant and animal species that are endangered, threatened or are of special concern in the City of Kalamazoo are noted on the following table by section number. The species listed are known to occur on or near the section referenced. Species may occur outside known sections, depending upon suitable habitat availability. If developments are proposed on or near these areas the presence and importance of the plant or animal should be reviewed. For extremely rare or endangered species, a permit is required from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

TABLE XI-1Michigan Natural Features Inventory

It is important to note that threatened and endangered species may have special value when located in a protected area or woodland. It may be the presence of woodlands which has protected the species and provided habitat.

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